In Minneapolis in 1888, 21-year-old reporter Eva McDonald slipped onto the floor of the Shotwell, Clerihew and Lothmann factory on the banks of the Mississippi, where hundreds of women hunched over long tables, sewing calico shirts and overalls.
The room was reeking and hot. The company had just slashed wages to pennies a day. But the women saved their anger for the foreman's corrosive contempt for his female employees.
If he met them dressed nicely on the street, he sneered that if they could afford such finery, he should cut their wages more. He offered to trade one woman's promotion for sexual favors, shook and swore at another.
These experiences might have been common, but their documentation in a newspaper, which McDonald provided a few days later, was a revelation.
Alongside headlines about the opening of the Washington Monument and the crimes of the menacing London predator "Jack the Ripper," newspapers of the late 1880s and early 1890s were full of in-depth exposés of workplace sexual harassment, like the one McDonald wrote for the St. Paul Globe. Though the term "sexual harassment" wasn't in common use until the 1970s, journalists reported on stalking, leering bosses, and disrespect that undermined confidence and stalled careers. Their gutsy work resulted in strikes, increased social services and new laws.
The current push to hold businesses and individuals accountable has its roots in this pioneering journalism of 130 years ago.
What enabled these industry-changing exposés was a surge of women into newspaper offices. The number of female reporters and editors leapt from 1870, when the census might have listed the names of all 35, to 1890, when there were nearly 900. The fact of their sex allowed female reporters to gain women's trust, ask questions a male journalist might not consider, and, when need be, don a disguise to record factory conditions from the inside.
A few months after McDonald's Minneapolis story, Helen Cusack, a former schoolteacher, adopted a thick brown veil and the pseudonym "Nell Nelson" and went undercover for the Chicago Times. At a cigar factory, the room where Cusack stripped tobacco leaves had pornographic pictures posted on the walls. A man chased female employees in order to "tickle" them.
At an underwear company, a woman described how the cashier rubbed his hands over her face and, when she complained, paid her in silver coins riddled with holes. "I don't think I can tell you how many ways there are to insult a girl," she told Cusack.
A few years later, New York-based journalist Victoria Earle Matthews visited the South and uncovered sham employment agencies that lured Black women north with promises of good jobs, only to inform them, when they arrived, that they were deeply in debt for ship fare and lodging. The women, Matthews discovered, faced a kind of long-term indentured servitude that offered little chance for escape.
These hidden abuses entered the public conversation of the late 1880s and early 1890s, playing out on op-ed pages and in legislative chambers. The increased awareness sometimes paid off, and sometimes didn't.
The Shotwell employees went on strike, an effort that failed when the company declared bankruptcy. Cusack's reporting contributed to the passage of a New York state law mandating the appointment of eight female deputy factory inspectors. Matthews enlisted the help of police to keep eye on the docks, but also spent long hours waiting herself for steamships arriving from the South, hoping to intercept young women disembarking and to find them lodging and jobs before they fell into the clutches of traffickers.
While there are far more than 900 women in newsrooms today — feeding the recent breakthroughs in reporting on workplace sexual harassment — they still receive only 37% of news bylines across all formats (print, internet, television and wire reports) according to a 2019 study by the Women's Media Center.
What could we achieve if we approached 50%? The daring work of these early journalists, dismissed as silly, overwrought, and sentimental and largely forgotten, serves as a reminder of what can happen when the door to the newsroom swings open. New perspectives, and innovations, flood in.
Kim Todd is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota and author of the forthcoming "Sensational: The Hidden History of America's 'Girl Stunt Reporters.' "